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History museum tells ‘The Story of North Carolina’

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Toward the end of the new exhibit at the state Museum of History, in between the section about World War II and the one about the civil rights movement, visitors must choose: Will they walk through the side marked "white" or the side marked "colored"?

Those signs are one of the many realistic ways that the museum tells "The Story of North Carolina," the permanent exhibit that opens Nov. 5. While the first part of the story opened earlier this year, the second part is now finished and tells the state's history from the 1830s to the civil rights era.

"Servicemen are returning home from the war, and they return to a segregated society," said Diana Bell-Kite, the museum's associate curator. "So you walk into this section and you choose to walk through the white or colored door because that's what faced North Carolina troops when they came home."

The 20,000-square-foot exhibit is the museum's largest and gives it a chance to show off artifacts that have been displayed infrequently or not at all. The design and construction cost about $9.3 million, with private funding covering about $1.1 million of that. Much of the money went toward telling the stories of ordinary North Carolinians, not just the rich, powerful and famous.

"I think if there was any one thing that we tried hard to do, it was to make this actually more focused on the average, every day, ordinary Joe and Joan," said RoAnn Bishop, a museum curator. "Even though it's got the important people in here — the planters and the politicians and the rich folks — it also has the everyday farmer and mill worker and military man and woman."

Among the famous: The reproduction of the Wright brothers' first airplane now hangs not in the front of the museum but with the section titled "Into the Modern Age." And among the not-so-famous: In that same section, visitors also will see a prototype automobile made by Gilbert Waters in 1903, the same year the Wright brothers took flight near Kitty Hawk. Waters couldn't get banks or family members to invest in his Buggymobile, so his idea didn't pan out in time to beat Henry Ford.

"He wanted to make New Bern the Detroit of the South, but once the Model T came out, it kind of eclipsed everything else," said RaeLana Poteat, another museum curator.

The section with the Wright flyer and the Buggymobile stands out. It includes a textile room where, with a push of a button, a visitor can hear the loud clacking of the weaving machines and see the lint and dust that rose from those mills, causing workers to develop brown lung disease. Also known as byssinosis, brown lung disease is caused by the constant inhalation of textile dust. Its symptoms include wheezing, coughing and chest tightness.

It's no accident that headache powders were developed in areas where the textile mills and/or railroads were located, the curators said. Goody's was developed in Winston-Salem; BC in Durham; and Stanback in Salisbury.

"They were marketed to textile workers who would come out from the noisy, horrible experience that you've just seen in there and have headaches," Poteat said. "They also were marketed up and down the railroad that ran through those areas. There were a lot of railroad men and textile workers who used those headache powders. So it's no coincidence that they were founded in North Carolina, probably."

Among the artifacts are entire buildings: the Robson house from Pitt County, the fourth-oldest documented home in North Carolina, and a slave cabin from Martin County built around 1860. All the curators know for certain about the cabin comes from the census, which says seven people lived there: a 45-year-old man; a 20-year-old man; a 21-year-old woman; a 16-year-old girl; a 12-year-old girl; and two 1-year-old boys.

"We don't know really any of their names," Bishop said. "We don't know if they were related."

Among the symbols of the death and destruction caused by slavery and the war is a tiny branding iron with the letter "M," which stood for murderer. In 1787, a slave named Darby was burned at the stake for striking his owner with an ax and killing him. Darby's younger brother, who was about 14, was accused of helping Darby.

Both his cheeks were branded with that letter "M." He also received 100 lashes on his bare back, and one-half of each ear was cut off.

Another notable part of the exhibit is in the Civil War portion, where a display includes the largest collection of objects associated with a single North Carolina Confederate enlisted soldier. Included are Alfred May's half of a shelter, his uniform, rifle, cartridge box, pistol, knapsack and haversack — even tiny pieces of lye soap.

A visitor can imagine that May, who left his Pitt County home in the summer of 1862 and enlisted in Company F (Trio Guards), 61st Regiment, North Carolina Troops, returned home and tossed his belongings in an attic. His regiment had participated in the last major battle of the war, at Bentonville in March 1865. He and his older brothers, Benjamin and Robert, served in the same unit. Benjamin suffered a head wound at Petersburg, Va., in July 1864, while Robert died in October of unrecorded causes at a hospital in Richmond.

"Part of me just wonders if he came home and he was just so sick of the war that he just put it all away and didn't want to deal with it," Poteat said. "Or was he really intentionally saving it? I don't know."

Other post-war artifacts include a wooden leg that a soldier carved from a wheel so he could walk home and a pair of worn shoes that another soldier wore on his long walk home after battle. A framed quilt that hangs on the wall speaks eloquently of loss. Made by Ann Knox of Mecklenburg County, the fabric is from shirts she made for her sons to wear in war. Two sons died during the war; one died of his injuries or illness several days after the war ended; and a fourth was left crippled and in poor health. He never fully recovered from his injuries and died in 1869.

While some of the pieces in the first part of the state's history come from outside sources, most in the second part are from the museum's collection. The curators expect people to visit time and again to absorb all the history and to take in other exhibits that will provide more detail about particular eras or people.

"I think there is real excitement about the fact that we now finally have an exhibit that tells the whole story of North Carolina," Poteat said. " ... We've tried for years to get this going. People would come in and want to know, OK, I'm from out of town or I've got my child with me and we want to see the history of North Carolina. And we would have an exhibit about part of it here, an exhibit about another part over here, but it wouldn't really be chronological and comprehensive."

That's changed with this exhibit, which ends with this quote from Charles Kuralt on a wall: "North Carolina is 503 miles from east to west, and 187 miles from north to south, so that leaves plenty of room for growth and change. Still, I am glad I know it as it is, and remember it as it was."

Online:

http://www.ncmuseumofhistory.org/Martha Waggoner can be reached at —http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc